Interview - Craig Richards
Can you give me a brief rundown of how you went from washing dishes in grad school to helping launch St. Cecilia?
I did start out washing dishes and eventually moved up to being a short order cook. I worked at breakfast/lunch places for a couple of years, slinging eggs and learning the basics of cooking before moving to fine dining. Once again, I had to work my up the ladder, cooking at night while holding down a daytime desk job at a publishing company as an editor of scientific and medical journals. I learned a lot during this time, sometimes the hard way, about cooking. I didn't go to culinary school so I had to read as much as possible and absorb anything anyone showed me. I was also fortunate enough to work for some patient chefs who were great teachers.
You left your executive chef post to start St. Cecilia as it's Chef de Cuisine. Do you feel like you took a step backwards in doing so?
There's a story behind that time and transition. For about eight months, I was trying to get my own restaurant off the ground. I was a straight hustler during that time, doing everything I could to achieve my dream. When it stalled for various reasons, I reached out to Ford Fry who I had spoken to about a year earlier about some opportunities. He said he had an opening for a CdC at his new place that was opening in a few months and thought I would be a good fit. The concept is a perfect fit for how I like to cook and eat so I jumped at it. I felt like I could really contribute to the Chef Team and was excited about being on an opening team, but focused on just a few aspects which were in this case, mostly the pasta program.
It didn't take long for you to be back at the helm as the executive chef of St. Cecilia. What do you think contributed to your promotion? Was there any competition to get the executive chef title?
Our opening EC decided to go back to his previous restaurant which is within the same group. I knew that I wanted the job, that I wanted to be the one calling the shots and running this kitchen. It's a big space with a big staff that needs strong leadership and I think it was my leadership ability that ultimately got me the job. I'm not sure if there was any competition for the title at the time. I was trying tostay focused on running the kitchen and building our team and I naturally stepped into that role.
You worked under the great Lidia Bastianich. Do you feel like you bring any of her leadership style into your kitchen?
I think what I bring to the kitchen that I learned from Lidia is the relentless attention to detail and drive to put out food that truly connects with the guest. She always pushed me to be a strong leader, to walk tall and be confident about being in charge.
Most chefs had a mentor(s) at some point in their career that has guided them along or inspired them. Did you have such a mentor?
Yes I have two. Subarna Bhattachan and Chris Juliano. Subarna was my chef earlyin my career and had a Buddhist-like patience for all of my stupid mistakes that I'm still thankful for. Chris had worked in the Babbo kitchen and taught me a lot about butchering, braising, vegetable cooking all with a contagious amount of energy.
Are you currently mentoring someone in the industry?
I hope so! I'm privileged and proud to have some previous sous' who are now ECs or own their own restaurants. George Yu, Fiore Moletz and Brent Banda are a few guys that come to mind. I'm also working with a young chef, Max Hines who is the EC of a small restaurant here in Atlanta. I don't know if I'm a mentor to him but I give him advice here and there and I've been a guest chef in his kitchen. He's a newly anointed EC and I remember what that's like so I try and help him when I can.
As a chef you certainly want to keep your cooks as long as possible. However, young cooks often want to work in several different restaurants to gain diverse experiences in a short amount of time. How long would you say someone should plan to work at a given restaurant while working their way up?
I tell all of my cooks that they need to stay with us for at least a year. At least. There's no way you can get a handle on everything a kitchen has to offer you in less time. The trend of jumping from restaurant to restaurant is a plague that I wish younger cooks would understand hurts their career. If you haven't been anywhere longer than six months, I won't consider your resume for a position. I haven't jumped around at all during my career and I'm extremely proud of that and it was noted in an interview when I was interviewing for my position at St. Cecilia.
You have a lot of cooks working with you at St. Cecilia, how do you keep the team vibe strong?
We don't tolerate any negativity within the Team and we all work for each other. This is not a cut throat kitchen and never will be as long as I'm at the helm. I talk about this a lot, sometimes to the point of sounding a little corny but it's important. We also have what we call Total Line. It's a theory derived from the Dutch soccer team of the 70's that they called Total Football. It's the idea of opening your eyes and seeing what's outside your station, how the entire kitchen is running at that moment. Just because you're working garde manger doesn't mean you can jump over and help plate pastas when they’re getting hit. I want everyone to learn each other's stations so everyone can work everywhere. You learn more that way and it's on the job training for a station you may be working some day. It's also important for team morale and I'm convinced this overall mindset translates to what we put on the plate.
Most restaurants have different ways of interviewing potential line cooks and chefs including a stage, cooking special meals and even taking food knowledge tests. What is the process for a new applicant to get a gig in your kitchen?
We have a sit down interview with candidates and talk about their past experiences, what their looking for, their food knowledge and what our expectations are. We then do a stage and it's usually within about the first 10 minutes if we know someone is going to work out. It's how they carry themselves, work with food, hold their knife, interact with other cooks, how respectful they are of our ingredients and our kitchen. After that, we poll the kitchen staff to see if they want the candidate on our Team.
How about a hypothetical as a parting thought... Let's say I'm a sous chef with good experience in the kitchen and looking to make the jump to CDC or Executive Chef. How do I go about getting a job as an exec at another restaurant essentially jumping over their current staff? And how do I maintain a positive relationship with my current team and boss?
That's a difficult jump to make for sure. My initial response is to stay where you are and increasingly take on more responsibilities and show the EC that you're ready if he ever steps down or takes another job. I would also network with other chefs at events and on other occasions. The more people know your name, your face and the food you're doing, the more likely they are to think of you when something comes open.